BIZ-CORONAVIRUS-MASKS-BUSINESSES-TB

Wine director Max Whitfield works with a face mask to protect against COVID-19 inside the Green Grocer on Thursday in Chicago. Businesses are weighing mask requirements following recommendations made last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CHICAGO — At least one Chicago grocer didn’t wait for updated recommendations from health officials to require customers — vaccinated or not — to mask up again while shopping.

Green Grocer Chicago owner Dileep Gangolli brought back the store’s mask requirement about two weeks ago as COVID-19 cases began to rise. After looking at the area’s vaccination rate, Gangolli said he worried the risk of a customer or employee contracting the virus was too great.

“My fear was one of someone coming in not even knowing that they were infected,” he said.

New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week advising everyone to wear masks indoors in places where COVID-19 cases are rising quickly left businesses wondering whether they would soon be back in the position of asking customers to mask up.

Certain businesses never stopped requiring all customers wear masks or, like Gangolli, decided to bring back the tighter rules on their own. Others are waiting to see whether state or local officials bring back mask mandates before asking vaccinated customers who have grown accustomed to going out barefaced to put their masks back on.

“We had been wearing them for so long and we just got rid of them a few weeks ago,” said Susan Gardner, owner of Salon Envy in the city’s Lincoln Park area. “It’s really hard to go back to something when you just gave it up.”

Illinois said last week that it would follow new CDC guidance saying everyone — even those who are fully vaccinated — should wear masks indoors in areas with “substantial” or “high” transmission of COVID-19. On Thursday, Cook County was added to the list of areas meeting the threshold where universal indoor masking is recommended, along with Will, DuPage and McHenry counties in the Chicago area.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a new mask requirement for everyone in state-run facilities but the state has not reinstituted broader mask requirements.

Gardner said she plans to wait for more guidance from the city before making any changes to the salon’s rules, which say masks are optional for fully vaccinated employees and customers.

On Friday, Walmart told store and distribution center employees they would need to begin wearing masks if they work in a county the CDC says is experiencing substantial or high transmission. Customers, however, are not required to wear masks, though Walmart said it’s strongly encouraged.

The retailer is also doubling its incentive for workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine to $150.

Macy’s said it is reviewing the CDC’s updates to its guidance and local regulations but has not changed its policy, which does not require vaccinated employees and customers wear masks. J.C. Penney also does not require fully vaccinated adults wear masks in stores, except where required by local regulations.

Life Time, which has 11 Illinois athletic clubs, said it has not made any changes to its mask policy, which recommends unvaccinated members wear masks indoors.

Apple is requiring all customers wear masks in more than half of its U.S. stores, though vaccinated customers do not need to wear masks in Chicago.

Landmark Theatres only requires all theatergoers wear masks in areas where local ordinances require it, said Margot Gerber, vice president of marketing and publicity. So far, that only applies to its Los Angeles and St. Louis theaters.

Keeping policies in line with local rules is the best way to avoid potential conflicts over masks, Gerber said.

“When you go against what’s happening in a city, that’s where people start to feel they can’t live a certain way,” she said.

A manager in Los Angeles said things have gone smoothly since the mandatory mask policy was reinstated in late July, and even when theatergoers had to be reminded about the change, they generally complied quickly.

Gangolli, meanwhile, said his grocery store’s stricter mask policy has angered some customers, though masks are provided free to anyone spending at least $5.

“For most people, this is a huge step backward,” he said. “They want the freedom of going around without masks.”

Other stores, especially those catering to kids who can’t yet get vaccinated, never felt comfortable dropping mask requirements.

At Kido, a kids’ toy and clothing shop in Chicago’s South Loop, most customers haven’t questioned the mandatory mask policy, though it got “a little tedious” to enforce when the state mandate lifted, said owner Keewa Nurullah.

Customers got used to going maskless while out and about and were more likely to forget them at places like Kido, even if they weren’t opposed to wearing one, she said.

“If it’s a rule for everyone, I’m not the bad guy, it’s what everyone’s supposed to do,” she said.